Independent Bookstores Encourage the Simple Pleasure of Reading
Skip online ordering for a visit to five locally-owned neighborhood shops
Call it a traditional American pastime, but there’s something calming and relaxing about walking through a bookstore at your leisure. With a little bit of free time, you never know what you might find. In fact, it’s not even always about books. Take the library card-themed socks at BookPeople on North Lamar. Or the Ruth Bader Ginsburg ornament at Black Pearl Books on Burnet. These simple pleasures are things I had forgotten — until I visited five independent bookstores, on a day that just happened to be International Independent Bookstore Day.
My first stop brought me to Reverie, a tiny store on Manchaca Road, full of both used and new books, and next door to Captain Quackenbush’s Coffeehouse. Located in a shopping center with a Saturday market full of pop-up vendors, this South Austin neighborhood has a lot of flare. Just around the corner you’ll find a mural on a utility box that reads, “Keep South Austin Weird.”
Thais Perkins bought the bookstore last year alongside her wife, Maryann Cicala, who re-branded the shop and re-opened in September 2021. Formerly called Good Buy Books, a sign from the original store sits in the back of the shop — with its own section of books, paying homage to original owner, David Schunk, a Vietnam veteran in his 70s, who decided during the pandemic to retire and become a business partner to Perkins. The two met as members of a songwriters group, and Perkins’ lifelong love for art, science fiction and the environment is apparent throughout the bookstore.
Handwritten on the wall is homage to a group of people who sponsored the bookstore’s re-opening through an Indiegogo call to action.
“This is a great neighborhood,” says Cicala. “The neighbors have been incredibly supportive. We’ve had some programs where people could help stock the shelf at Crockett High School with Jason Reynold’s ‘Stamped.’ It’s one of the banned books on anti-racism. People would come in and buy the book, and they’d write a note for the kids.”
Diversity, inclusion and representation are also part of the mission of Black Pearl Books. The Central Austin bookstore saw a complete difference in atmosphere just by moving 2.5 miles to a shop on Burnet in February 2022.
“We weren’t aware that we’d become a neighborhood bookstore. So many people bike here and bring their children here,” says Katrina Brooks, who owns the store alongside her husband, Eric. “This is an inclusive space. Our customers have commented that it’s not like your transactional bookstore where you purchase a book and go home. We want people to tell us their story and stay a while; let’s chat.”
The Brooks family became inspired to open the store after realizing that classroom education “doesn’t always tell the full story.” The parents of a now 13-year-old Elisha and a 15-year-old Elijah began supplementing books and other educational materials for their children years ago, often encouraging them to share books on different topics with their classmates. But the entrepreneurial couple also realizes not everyone has that opportunity. As a result, part of their business model includes a small, yet inviting, section of the bookstore — for a community book exchange.
“You can take a book and next time you’re in, you bring something to share,” says Brooks. “Not everyone who walks into the bookstore can afford to purchase a book — or have the means or budget. That shouldn’t hinder people from having the joy or being able to educate themselves.”
On the outskirts of the University of Texas campus, at West 29th Street near Rio Grande, but with ample parking, the owner of Malvern Books takes pride in providing a different kind of niche. In his store, you’ll find 90 percent poetry and fiction books — and only books from small press.
“If you find it in other bookstores in town, you’re not going to find it here,” says owner Joe Bretcher, who has a PhD in English from UT. Book recommendations often come from Bretcher’s staff of four to five people or from connections he has in the small press publishing industry.
For a more traditional — and larger selection of books — the state’s largest independent bookstore is located off North Lamar, not far from the Whole Foods flagship store, and just outside of downtown. BookPeople may have a similar feel to a Barnes & Noble, but it is one-of-a-kind. Spacious and with two stories, it’s easy to roam around and browse from dozens of sections. Refreshments are also available from CoffeePeople Café, a spin-off of Texas Coffee Traders, complete with a custom blend called “Grok” that pays tribute to the store’s original name.
“We get so much neighborhood foot traffic,” says marketing coordinator, Gina Carra, of customer trends that showcases Austin’s transient nature. “We meet a lot of tourists and people just wandering in. It’s very sweet. Lots of people come here for the first time, which seems like it should not happen that often, but it happens all the time.”
Collectively, one of the most exceptional things about these six independently owned bookstores is that despite their different neighborhood locations, the owners often team up to create their own sense of community. For example, when Reverie opened, BookPeople’s owners offered small business advice. The stores also recently joined together for a “book crawl” in honor of #IndieBookstoreDay, including a group video to raise awareness for the unique and special place local bookstores can have in the heart of neighborhoods they serve.
Vintage, collectible and unique books are a staple at South Congress Books — where the local brand specializes in art, photography, literature, music, select artworks and vinyl. Matching the creative vibes of South Congress, the bookstore is known for “celebrating the book as an object of value and beauty.”